Fun fact: I was a cute kid.
No really, I was goddamn adorable. I wish I ‘d known back then, but in retrospect, it’s easy to see why my older cousin would often bring me with him when talking to girls. I had a mess of blond hair that never quite sat right on my head, with green eyes that were a little too big and made me look like a perpetually confused anime character.
It was useful to have me along. I was disarming as hell. And when my pure unfiltered cuteness didn’t work?
I killed her softly with my song.
While I should probably be resentful of my cousin for using me as a pick-up device, I really have to thank him for being the first person in my life to help me discover something I was good at. I had a set of pipes, and singing became an interest that sort of formed my personality early in life, while also giving me a harsh lesson on what it was like to not fit in.
My relationship with music has always been a weird one. Singing the hottest R&B hits of the 90s was great when my cousin wanted to impress the ladies, but not so much when trying to be one of the cool kids at school. Back in the halcyon days when being like everyone else was a really really important to me for some reason, I couldn’t relate to everyone that was losing their minds over Green Day’s ‘Basketcase’ or Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box”. I was too busy jamming out to All 4 One’s “I Swear” and hot cuts from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack.
I got punched a lot in 1995.
It wasn’t until some time later that I received a primer in rock and roll courtesy of my friend Adam. While I was trying to capture the finer points of Boyz II Men’s vocal gymnastics on the walk home from school, Adam was thrashing on his guitar, already a fount of knowledge on hard rock, punk, and the darker, dirtier, cooler side of music that I’d been blind to.
It was soon after we discovered that my particular talents actually translated quite well to emulating the charismatic front men of our favorite metal acts. Suddenly, I wasn’t practicing for my duet with Mariah Carey anymore. I was James Hetfield. I was Bruce Dickinson. I was Ozzy.
Adam and I would go on to form a few different “bands” in the later years, most of which never made it out of his basement. Between songs, he and the other bandmates would noodle around, play scales, switch instruments just to show off. And there I was, getting dragged kicking and screaming into puberty, stubbornly refusing to come to grips with two very unfortunate things.
1) I really wasn’t that cute anymore.
2) My voice was changing.
Soon I realized that I wasn’t designated the singer because of my commanding stage presence or vocal mastery. I was the singer because I literally couldn’t do anything else. Meanwhile, Adam, our guitar player, would switch to over to drums and knock out an entire Rage Against the Machine album in his sleep.
At that point, I stopped wanting to be Ozzy. I wanted to be Adam.
Thus began my several decade long love-hate relationship with guitar playing.
A guitar, for the unmotivated, is really nothing more than an expensive prop that sits in the corner of your room, judging you, like a hole in the wall that you never quite got covered. You could go through the effort to fix it, but man, effort is hard. To hold a guitar for the first time, without having any idea of what you’re supposed to do with it can be a really demoralizing experience. To master it is to essentially learn a new language; likely one that you’ve heard spoken fluently and effortlessly your entire life.
It may sound like I’m overstating things, but it’s important to understand that the ubiquitous nature of guitars in modern music has given so many like myself the false idea that it should be something easily achievable. For most people, it isn’t. My vision quest to become the next Steve Vai ended after learning a few chords, just enough to play every Offspring song I knew. Advancing past that just lead to frustration, then laziness, then the guitar relocating to my closet, where it couldn’t judge me. I didn’t suddenly stop wanting to be good at guitar, mind you, but I liken it to ending a diet whilst still having a desire to be thin. I needed feedback, signs of progress, and most importantly, motivation.
When Rocksmith first came out in 2011, it gave me that. It rekindled that desire I had to learn by putting all of those things I found tedious into a familiar package. It gave me that tactile sensation that I was looking for, the simple elation from getting a few notes right that made it so much easier to try the notes that came after. It gave me barriers and rewards for overcoming them; painfully simple concepts that I’d been repeating since grade school, but instead of looking for me to perform a tricky jump or a super combo, it required me to learn that language.
When I initially came up with the idea to write about games in this format, I knew that Rocksmith had to be the first, because it’s easily been my most played video game of the last five years. Now, I’d love to tell you that I’ve since become a guitarist of great renown, known the world over for the sonic landscapes that I paint with my tasty solos, but I have no such success story.
See, Rocksmith is a game, but is also kinda isn’t. There’s a devious curve hidden underneath the Rocksmith experience, right around the time that you’ve learned every 80s hair metal riff that you wanted, but are still looking to go deeper. Rocksmith is really good at teaching you to play songs. The part where you actually learn songs? That’s all on you, and it’s around that point that I had to admit what I already knew; there simply is no substitute for practice. The key difference though, is how the game changes your perspective, which is perhaps even more important than the lesson themselves. There is a reverence for music that excites you about the culture and drives you to do your own research independent of the game and seek out others that are learning with you.
I’ve certainly still had my fits and starts; long stretches when I stopped playing for petty reasons. There was a point about a year and a half ago when I swore off playing entirely just because someone I was involved with also had a thing going on with a dude that was a much better guitar player than me. (If you haven’t noticed at this point, I have a real big “comparing myself to others” problem. I’ll try not to bombard you. We have a whole year to work up a good therapy bill.)
But the important thing is that I kept coming back. The extensive DLC support and very passionate PC modding community definitely helped, as did switching over to bass as my primary instrument. I still dabble in guitar, just enough to keep my skills at a level between “three chord college hipster” and “campfire douche”, but I’m finding it infinitely more fun to hold down a groove in the background, opening myself up to more varied genres of music.
You know, like R&B.
So I may not be able to shred like my old buddy Adam, but if you need someone to play Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day” on short notice, I know a guy. (Me, by the way, the guy is me.)
I’m available for weddings.